Middle Tennessee could not find its stride against Memphis in a 36-17 setback at the Liberty Bowl here Saturday.
The Blue Raiders (2-2) mustered 328 yards total offense and were guilty of two turnovers that proved costly and Memphis' defense scored on a fumble return and a safety as the Tigers (2-1) controlled the game from the outset.
Middle Tennessee could not get its ground game going and battled poor starting field position most of the game. When the Blue Raiders did move the ball inside Tiger territory, twice they turned it over to thwart scoring opportunities.
Quarterback Austin Grammer was 25-of-37 for 247 yards but he also was guilty of a fumble that led to a touchdown and an interception. Memphis native Shane Tucker scored two touchdowns in his return to his hometown, and sophomore receiver Demetrius Frazier had a breakout night with seven receptions for 96 yards. Frazier came into the game with seven career receptions. He had five catches for 84 yards on a Blue Raider scoring drive in the fourth quarter.
The Blue Raiders managed just 81 yards on the ground with Reggie Whatley leading the way with 41.
Memphis, on the other hand, piled up 271 yards on the ground and finished with 482 yards total offense. The Tigers built a 19-7 halftime lead and the Memphis defense would not allow the Blue Raiders to put together sustained drives.
Misfortune plagued the Blue Raiders at the start of the third quarter. Middle Tennessee went three-and-out on its first possession but the Raider defense returned the favor by holding Memphis to three-and-out. The Memphis punt was short and hit a Blue Raider player. Memphis recovered. Instead of Middle Tennessee starting the drive near midfield, Memphis retained possession inside Blue Raider territory.
The blue-clad defense stood strong, forcing a three-and-out but it did enable Memphis to flip the field and pin the Blue Raiders inside their 10. After going three-and-out Middle Tennessee had to punt and Memphis regained possession near midfield. The Tigers drove to the Raider 12 but the defense came up huge on a third-and-2 play and forced a 29-yard field goal, pushing the Memphis lead to 22-7.
Middle Tennessee answered on its next drive. Starting at its 25, Middle Tennessee marched to the Tiger 19 before the drive stalled and the Blue Raiders settled for a 36-yard Cody Clark field goal to pull the Raiders to within 22-10. Sophomore quarterback Austin Grammer was 4-for-5 on the drive with four straight completions.
Middle Tennessee's defense bent but didn't break again on Memphis' next drive. The Tigers drove the Blue Raider 33 but came up short on a third-down conversion. Jake Elliott's 51-yard field goal was right.
The Tigers made sure a Blue Raider comeback was not probable when its defense scored minutes later. Middle Tennessee was moving and Grammer's 11-yard rush moved the ball to the Tigers' 41 before he fumbled. Memphis' Bobby McCain scooped up the football and returned it 59 yards for the touchdown. The extra point provided a comfortable 36-10 lead for the Tigers.
Any lingering hopes of a fantastic finish were dashed when Middle Tennessee gave up its second turnover in as many possessions. Grammar had marched the Blue Raiders inside the Memphis 30. He was intercepted at the Tiger 17 as Memphis took back over with 8:05 remaining to essentially put the finishing touches on the victory.
Poor starting field position coupled with an inability to move the football created problems for the Blue Raiders throughout the first half. Take away the drive Middle Tennessee started following an interception and the average field position for the Blue Raiders on the other four possessions was the 13.5 yard line.
An inability to convert third downs and move the football enabled the Tigers, on the other hand, to work with a short field most of the first half. As a result, Memphis bolted to a 19-7 lead midway through the first half.
Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch hit Alan Cross on a six-yard scoring pass to give the Tigers the early lead with 11:41 remaining in the first quarter. The Blue Raiders had stopped the Tigers and forced a punt on the opening drive but a personal foul penalty kept the drive alive and Memphis made the infraction hurt when it finished the drive with a touchdown.
Field position set up the Tigers' second score. After a punt pinned the Blue Raiders at their 1, Memphis collected a sack of Austin Grammer in the end zone to increase the advantage to 9-0.
Middle Tennessee's defense provided the Blue Raiders with their first break when Xavier Walker hauled in his second career interception to halt another Tiger drive at midfield. The Blue Raiders converted the turnover into points when Memphis native Shane Tucker scored from the 1. Cody Clark's point after cut the Memphis lead to 9-7.
Memphis tacked on a field goal and a touchdown on its next two drives to stretch the lead to 19-7 midway through the first half.
Middle Tennessee's defense came up with a big play late in the half to curtail another Memphis drive in Raider scoring position. Facing fourth-and-2 from the Middle Tennessee 31, Memphis opted to go for the first down instead of attempting a 48-yard field goal. The Tigers came into the game three-for-three on fourth-down attempts but Shaquille Huff made a huge stop on the play to turn the ball over to the Raider offense on downs.
The Blue Raider offense had difficulty getting untracked in the first half. The unit totaled just 112 yards in the first half and collected just six first downs. Memphis piled up 18 first down in the first half on its way to 286 yards total offense, including 181 on the ground.